An allegory: On one especially memorable family vacation when I was a pre-teen we drove from CA to WI (and back, but that’s another story) camping each night along the way. Donner Memorial State Park in CA. A last-minute offroad spot outside of Salt Lake City (with cows and a babbling brook.) Somewhere high in the Snowy Range in Wyoming, where we got altitude sickness. And then there was Nebraska, which was flat and took all day to cross. US80 (now I-80, but also known as the Lincoln Highway, Oregon Trail and California Trail) is an old road and in Nebraska there are 72 miles of the most absolute straightness in all of the Interstate Highway System, not varying by more than a few yards. Back in the day it was still a field-flanked two-lane clogged with slow-moving farm equipment and a town with reduced speed limits every ten miles. I stared out the back window of our 1956 Ford Country Sedan Station Wagon at the endlessness of the landscape and at the huge wall of black clouds that followed behind us in the west the whole inching way. We kept just ahead of the thunderstorm until we stopped and set up camp for the night at some tidy midwestern roadside wayfarer court where every car there was from California. Then came the deluge. It wasn’t like you couldn’t see it coming!
This family vacation story is the current metaphor for my studio practice. For the past year or more, my art-making has been like a prolonged, often boring and sometimes ominous ride across Nebraska pursued by thunderheads. Try as I might to spin it, I knew what was coming when I came to a full stop at year’s end: a metamorphic whirlwind. I wrote a few posts here in the Studio Journal about feeling the pause, but staying curious about it. About being quite d-o-n-e with making new rusty cans. About not knowing what was coming or if it would even include clay, but being willing to sit quiet in the back seat and let the evolution be the real thing.
Sure enough, The Tempest of Big Change washed me clean and frisky almost overnight. Here are some of my takeaways and directions, with more arriving every day.
- I still want to work in clay, but I need to be more involved with its wet surfaces and how they will inform the fired piece.
- I still want to make vessels, even functional ones, but they must be all mine, start to finish, and not ironic interpretations of other things.
- It’s necessary for me to engage with my finished surfaces differently as well. To step away from underglaze-painting of products and brands, even original ones.
- It’s crucial for me to spend more time with the process of making and less time with expecting certain outcomes.
- I’m interested in subtler, more abstract pieces with less imagery, fewer words, and in finding my own kind of ceramic beauty.
- I’m curious to see what happens when I return to mixed media and more sculptural ceramics.
So, the biggest realization here is that in order to honor and act on these Takeaways, I must “dis-brand” myself in certain ways. Not only from making those rusty cans of branded products, but in a greater sense it means not making the works I have spent a goodly amount of years cultivating and getting known for. Gulp. Yet my art heart will not be denied and off I go through that magic portal that many creatives step into when change comes to them.
First stop is the “transitional” work you see in the photo. These are reworkings of former “cans of something” from my inventory which have been simplified and abstracted with a gold glaze and tags. The contents of them are meant to be positive and healing and utterly sincere. I think of it as an Apothecary Collection and think there will be many more. (I’m tempted to keep that flask of Courage, though!)
Directions for New Work:
- I am handbuilding primarily by pinching and working with soft coils. If I make slabs – which is all I formerly did – they are nearly always textured, carved, abraded, sgraffitoed, appliqued or otherwise amended from plain and smooth.
- How can I go more eccentric and personal? Only I can make it authentic.
- I am returning to glazes, especially the ones that help reveal textured surface or shapely forms.
- Nearly daily I make a small pinched walking meditation vessel. The framework for this is: no tools but hands and heart, and pay attention each moment. There are no other marks to hit, no direction home.
- What balms, unguents and elixirs does the world need? What love, kindness and gentle humor? What wonder?
- Work comes before concepts and explanations. See what happens and describe it afterwards.
So there you have it. I have Dis-Branded myself. And it feels just right.
Liz Crain, who remembers very little about the drive back home from WI to CA. Except the Tree in the Rock roadside attraction just outside of Laramie, WY. And, soon after leaving the Tree, the fishtailing, swerving and rolling over and over down a long bare embankment where midway she told herself to close her mouth because dirt was getting in it. She remembers that even with no seatbelts and a metal Coleman ice chest tumbling around with them, no-one in her family was seriously hurt. But certainly bruised and vulnerable and terrified to ride in the new Chevy Impala Station Wagon that her parents bought the next day to continue the journey.